Hickenlooper’s Hypocrisy on Highway Expansion on Full Display in 2008 Documentary

If the governor stuck to the same transportation policy he espoused as mayor, the widening of I-70 would be dead.

Image: Journeyman Pictures
Image: Journeyman Pictures

As governor, John Hickenlooper has expressed no hesitation about the Colorado Department of Transportation widening I-70 in north Denver, spending billions to create more sprawl and pollution. Just last week he insisted that the highway expansion will be good for Denver’s health.

But when he was mayor and directly accountable to Denver residents, Hickenlooper had a very different stance on highway projects. Back then, Hickenlooper portrayed himself as a forward-thinking urbanist intent on building a city where walking, biking, and transit got people where they needed to go.

You can see that version of Hick in the 2008 documentary “Sprawling from Grace.”

The film documents the lasting damage caused by politicians who prize highway expansions above all else: Spread out development patterns that lock people into car dependence, sapping personal wealth and entrenching our unsustainable addiction to oil.

Hickenlooper makes three appearances as a talking head between B-roll of Denver roads full of cars and trucks. In one of the opening scenes, he says he can’t fathom why we’ve built this drive-everywhere landscape:

If you really begin looking at the roots of why we’ve had this incredible increase in vehicle miles traveled and number of car trips per day per family — we’re up top 13 or 14 car trips per family per day — to me it’s unfathomable. Until you actually look at people’s — you know, our lifestyles have become so segmented.

Later on, Hickenlooper dreams of a city where people can walk everywhere:

My vision of transit is that it allows us to have a sequence of dense hubs of activity. So people live, people work, they can go to movies or get a cup of coffee all in one spot. So when they walk out and are seeking something, they don’t have to get in their car. If you can walk everywhere and get what you need, then all of a sudden a lot of the bad parts of economic growth go away. You don’t have the pollution, you don’t have the traffic jams — you have a much more sustainable life.

At the time, Hickenlooper had a decent track record on transit and planning issues, helping to pass the 2004 FasTracks legislation. Widening a freeway in the middle of the city, however, completely undercuts that work.

Hickenlooper’s head of planning at the time, Peter Park, also appears in the documentary. Here’s what he had to say:

For decades the common solution to congestion on highways and freeways was adding a lane or adding several lanes, as if continually adding lanes is gonna solve our congestion problems as growth occurs. Well the reality is, and we know today, that in fact adding lanes only induces more congestion. And what’s amazing about it, if you think about it, is that we spend billions of dollars on our roads systems and expanding road systems.

Which is exactly what Hickenlooper plans to do with I-70. Now that he has the power to reverse the cycle of car dependence he found so troubling a decade ago, he’s doing nothing to stop it. As governor (and a rumored presidential candidate), Hickenlooper is just another booster for freeways and sprawl.

  • TakeFive

    Widening I-70 will not create more sprawl. What will create more sprawl is the desperate need for affordable housing and/or the preference of those who can afford to live anywhere they want.

    Historically coming out of a recession developers would create new ‘starter home’ neighborhoods that afforded young people easy access to the American dream of owning a home. I could provide a long list of neighborhoods that fit that description as Denver built outwards. After this last recession that was NOT the case. Instead we saw high rent apartments in urban cores and upscale homes in suburbs. Nothing for the average Joe and Juanita. From what I gather if I-70 led to available affordable homes many, many would be happy to escape the stress of living downtown.

    Btw, Hickenlooper never was or would be against widening I-70; he know the difference between fantasy and what a critical freight and service corridor provides. There’s no hypocrisy here, only a connecting of dots that don’t.

    • MT

      Widening I-70 wil create more sprawl. It will allow more development further away from town. People will buy houses further out because they can drive on the new highway to get there quickly. That will continue until the congestion returns to where it is now. Then everyone will complain and want the highway widened again. It’s happend so many times in so many places it’s ridiculous to deny it.

      Yes, our land use policy will be responsible as well. If we don’t allow infill and denser housing within the area we’ve already developed, more will be built at the far edges.

      Starter homes don’t need to be single-family houses on the edge of town. Condos and townhomes within the city fill that role quite well. For all the complaining about luxury condos, most are still cheaper than the cost of a house. They could be even cheaper if anything other than single-family was even allowed in most of Denver.

      As for I-70, it should never have been built where it is, it’s not necessary, the city would function just fine if it were torn down, the neighborhoods around it would thrive, and freight would still get where it is going, 270 is not that far away.

      • TakeFive

        You’re wrong.

        The best example I think of is Phoenix. Going back to the 1970’s a combo of fiscal conservatives and environmentalists managed to block freeways from being built believing they would lead to sprawl. Guess what; it didn’t work; sprawl happened anyway. I could go into more detail but that’s sufficient. Ultimately residents screamed loud enough that a dedicated revenue stream for transportation was created in 1986 and renewed in 2004 for another 20 years.

        Destroying the historical fabric and character of nearby neighborhoods to downtown Denver is NOT a good answer.

        As for condos and townhomes being built Aurora did just that in the 1980’s. Yes, it resulted from more dense zoning allowed from land within Cherry Creek School District which was and is a magnet. But that didn’t prevent sprawl either.

        Your wishful, fanciful theories won’t work. Downtown Denver has become an unaffordable, stress inducing place. There are reasons why people who live in suburbs and more rural areas report they are happier.

        • MT

          Yes, you can create sprawl through terrible land use polices.
          Freeways encourage it by providing fast driving (temporarily) to places people otherwise wouldn’t choose to live.

          Building infill in the city is not destroying anything, it’s how cities work. Building highways in cities destroys them.

          The only thing that’s stressful downtown is the cars, which come from the sprawling land use.

          I’m sorry that you’ve lived your whole life in a freeway based world, but they do not belong in cities. Cities do not need them, and thrive without them. The fanciful theory was that big highways and sprawling home developments would provide cheap housing and fast travel times for everyone. That’s what has failed. Dense, walkable cities have been successful for thousands of years all across the world. That’s the model that’s proven.

          • TakeFive

            The rapid growth in Denver’s population has NOTHING to do with widened freeways. Why don’t you go talk to people instead of just spouting fantasies. I spent my life helping people find the homes they wanted. It’s not like I’m ignorant on the topic.

          • MT

            People are choosing from what’s available. Our land use policies dictate what’s available. Our transportation system dictates what land is developable.

            Yes, population growth is not the result of freeways. But WHERE the development goes in large part is.

            Saying it’s all a free market and sprawl just happens and we have to build giant freeways to accommodate it is a cop-out. We are responsible for how our city grows. We can choose sprawl and freeways or walkability and transit.
            These are policy choices.

          • TakeFive

            Downtown Denver is booming; if you are new to Denver there’s nothing affordable about it unless you make over $100,000. People who want to have families will for he most part move to a more affordable area with good schools.

            I’m all for better transit; I promote it every day. I don’t promote expanding roads unless it has been proven necessary from growth that has already occurred. I-70 is unique because it’s a critical freight and commercial corridor. You don’t have to believe it or like it but it’s a fact and reality.

          • Chris

            Speaking as someone relatively new to Denver that makes well under $100k and is starting a family, I find it much more affordable to live in the city’s core for many reasons. My wife and I were able to sell one car and hardly use the remaining car since our neighborhood is bikeable and near transit. It’s incredible how much cars cost and how much you can save in your budget by eliminating one. Also, we are happy living in a much smaller duplex because we don’t need a large yard since we’re close to great parks. I can’t imagine how we would afford moving to the outer ring suburbs where we would need to buy a single family house so our kids have room to play and pay for two vehicles that commute many miles daily. I think many young families are starting to have this same preference to raise their families in walkable, urban neighborhoods, that, while more expensive per square foot for real estate, can offer a more affordable lifestyle overall. If zoning allowed more density and fewer parking minimums, urban living could become much more affordable. Also, Denver’s schools are improving much faster than many suburban districts with the bond and mill levy investments being made in the city. Many suburban districts haven’t been able to pass a mill or bond for decades and it’s starting to show in their underfunded classrooms.

          • TakeFive

            Excellent comment; all very fair points. There will always be exceptions to the general ‘rules’ and to the extent others can copy your approach, I applaud it. Still Denver has a population of 682,500 while the metro area has a population of 2.8 million. I love all that is positive about what has been going on in the core city. I have a problem when assumptions are made that everyone should fit into the downtown profile or those that choose to Not live downtown are somehow inferior human beings. We’re all Americans here.

          • TakeFive

            If zoning allowed more density and fewer parking minimums, urban living could become much more affordable

            I respectfully disagree on this; what may seem logical on paper doesn’t always work so well in reaility.

            It’s easy to conflate issues here. With a lot of the construction in the core city, developers choose to build well over the minimum parking requirements and don’t even use the density that is allowed. Btw, it’s currently forecast that apartments will reach a saturation point this year regardless.

            I’m familiar with core area neighborhoods and the thought of destroying all that history and character is nauseating. In any case residents will never allow it. Go meet people that have lived in their neighborhoods for 10, 15, 20 years or longer and get to know what their priorities are and how they feel about where they live…. then come back and we’ll revisit this topic.

            Denver did a great job of defining areas of change and areas of stability and in neighborhoods like Mariposa they attempted to protect the historical significance of the Hispanic history of the neighborhood. Glad they did.

          • MT

            “I have a problem when assumptions are made that everyone should fit into the downtown model or those that choose to Not live downtown are somehow inferior and undeserving human beings.”

            This is horseshit.
            No one ever said that.

          • MT

            I’ve never judged what people choose. I’m judging the public policy that dictates what choices are available, which are subsidized, and which are detrimental to the good of the city as a whole.

            But continue being a liar.

          • MT

            Yes, I know it’s expensive in Denver now. The point is is done not HAVE to be. We can allow more and denser housing within the city. If we keep up with the demand prices will stop going crazy. Especially if we allow more varied housing types.
            Most of Denver is still single family houses, there’s plenty of room to mix in other things instead of continuing to sprawl.

            I’m sorry sprawl is all you know. It’s sad. Yes, garbage, car dependent, sprawl will continue to be built if we don’t change our policies. That’s the point, we can and need to change what we are doing.

            Things do not have to remain the way they have been your whole life. It’s a failing system, get over it. It was a 20th century experiment, it’s not how cities ever worked before, and it’s not how they will work in the future. The sooner we leave that path the better off we’ll be.

          • TakeFive

            You keep wanting to make this about me. It’s not about what I want. The world will continue to evolve and change and so it goes. If you think you can impose your world view on the rest then knock yourself out.

            I’m reminded of the primary issue with anything political. It’s very normal to think that: “if everybody was just like me then wouldn’t the world be a wonderful place.” Lots of luck my friend.

          • LevelHead

            I’m not sure that widening roads in itself will spur new development, however it will affect what type of development is created. People aren’t familiar enough with the concept of induced demand, so when they see they have a wide highway and affordable housing they will go for it. Covering our downtown with roads will make an undesirable downtown and won’t fix traffic. Affordable housing can still be available however it needs to start becoming transit based unless the future of Denver is just one big road. I think once people are given the option of sitting in hours of traffic or taking transit the choice will start to become more clear.

          • TakeFive

            To a degree perhaps.

            “Induced demand” is mostly a contrived talking point. It’s like “rooftops following retail” as they say. The Central 70 project is Not leading development; that area is already developed. But commuter traffic is not the primary driver; I-70 is a critical freight and commercial corridor.

            I’m a yuge transit proponent and offering a competitive transit option is still significantly lackaing. So we can certainly agree on that.

          • neroden

            Induced demand is a real thing. The fact that you call it a “contrived talking point” shows that you’re an ideologue who has no interest in paying attention to reality.

            I-70 in the area where it is proposed to be widened is a WORTHLESS ROAD. It has NO FUNCTION — it is completely redundant with I-270. It could be entirely removed with no loss. It is not a “critical corridor” for ANYTHING.

            If you can’t see this, there’s no point talking into your deaf ears.

          • TakeFive

            So you have a handle on reality, eh? Some how I suspect you are not very familiar with either the history or the infrastructure bones of Colorado. Where you coming up with the $2.5-$3.0 billion to re-route I-70; got a big checkbook? How familiar are with those soils and other obstacles. How do you expect Denver to pay for the $500-$750 million multi-modal blvd of dreams? Why don’t you take charge and get er done.

            Please, please feel free to convince the voters of the state of Colorado about your I-70 vision and the voters of Denver to pay for the blvd of dreams. Otherwise you’re just spouting talking points and wasting everybody’s time.

          • MT

            So your approach to anything political, i.e. public policy, is to let whatever happens happen.
            Mine is to advocate for policies that benefit the city and its people. That’s kind of the point of this blog, if you haven’t noticed.
            Our current polices which promote car-dependent development, ever expanding outward, and building giant freeways to access it, are not sustainable. That can not go on forever.

        • neroden

          Phoenix is full of freeways. And it has terrible zoning policies too.

          • TakeFive

            LOL, so you’re saying Phoenix is not your kind of place. Somehow I’m not surprised. “full of freeways” Hmm, how familiar are you with Phoenix? Yes they do happen to have a best in class freeway system. How familiar are you with their history and what the resident-taxpayer-voters wanted? Turns out the voters were so satisfied with the 1st 20 year transportation plan that they re-upped for another 20 years. But if you don’t like Phoenix that’s fine; just a guess that no one living in Phoenix cares what you think but I can ask around if you’d like.

      • TakeFive

        Development out by DIA (especially) and east will happen whether or not I-70 is widened. It’s due the the thirst of people wanting an affordable place to live. For the most part the land around Central 70 is already built out or is zoned commercial-warehouse. Many of the people who will choose to live (out) there won’t be going to and from downtown Denver. You don’t understand either development, employment clusters or the nature of humans to choose what is best for themselves.

        • MT

          If you think building single-family houses at the far edges of town is the way to supply affordable housing, you are out of your mind.

          • TakeFive

            I said nothing about exclusive building of single family homes anywhere. We, this county is a market driven by consumers kind of place. It’s not about what I want, it’s what I have observed. If you would prefer living in a dense city you have every right to do so but I don’t see the residents of Denver allowing their neighborhoods to be destroyed by liberal elitists.

          • MT

            Our housing market doesn’t resemble a free market whatsoever.
            What’s available is tightly controlled by our policies on what we allow to be built.

            Our neighborhoods are just destroyed by ignorant highway building.

          • TakeFive

            When I-70 was built the south side was an industrial/warehouse area. It didn’t destroy downtown Denver. Don’t believe me? Look at downtown now.

            The current housing market has been tightly controlled by Wall Street money that scooped up any and all distressed land sales following the Great Recession. They have held out for profits that have allowed only higher end housing to be built or at best middle income. Once again you don’t know your history or the facts.

          • MT

            And your world view is so narrow you’re blind to the possibility of anything different to the freeway and sprawl culture of your generation.
            Thanks to your generation for ruining the world, by the way.

          • MT

            Look at Larimer street. That was supposed to be buldozed for a freeway.
            And you’d be telling me that freeway HAS to be there, and it didn’t ruin anything. We’d have lost the most vibrant part of the city and you’d be saying “but trucks gotta drive there!”

            You’re wrong. Our car dominated sprawl and freeway culture is wrong. It kills people, it kills cities, and acting like we can’t do anything about it is complicity in it’s evil.

    • fpfrainaguirre

      We forget that there is an alternate route (270/76) that is barely a minute or two longer and also goes through a mostly industrial area in Adams county. Why are our Mayor and governor afraid to take on Adams county?

      • TakeFive

        Because nobody including you has come up with the extra $1.5 billion that would be needed. Additionally the City of Denver isn’t anxious to come up with $500-$750 million to build Denver’s Ave of Dreams. Btw, you would be inconveniencing all that freight and commercial traffic by at least 30 minutes … not a minute or two.

  • neroden

    WHO is backing the completely insane I-70 widening, which doesn’t pass any sanity test? Whoever it is has managed to bribe or coerce large numbers of people who you’d expect to know better, such as Hickenlooper. I really suspect some nefarious mob backing here.

    • TakeFive

      Now that’s funny; you think you know more about Colorado than the people who have lived and worked here for decades. Feel free to write a letter-to-the-editor in all the local papers about how you’re the expert on Colorado. Best of luck.

      • MT

        I have family going back here before Colorado was even a state, and I think widening I-70 is a terrible idea.

        • TakeFive

          Give my regards to your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.


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